Bierce---The Warrior Writer By H. M. East, Jr. 1915
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Ambrose Bierce, story-teller, poet, novelist, essayist and lampooner, was a warrior writer. I say "was," because it looks as if he had died on the battlefield. He joined the staff of General Villa, and has been missing since the fierce battle of Torreon, and friends have given up the old soldier scribe as dead.
Ambrose Bierce was a gallant fighter. He served in the Civil War, and was brevetted Major for bravery “in action.” Not only did he acquit himself as a brave soldier, but he looked the ideal man who can fight for the cause of his country and for an opinion or principle. He had a fine fighting face, in which glowed a pair of sharp gray eyes. His carriage was erect and military, and even after he had attained the age of over three score years and ten, he sought the battlefield, when most men would have preferred to spend their declining years by the fireside.
He was an unique man, and his books are a valuable addition to American literature, in spite of the fact that much of the material is unpleasant reading. In fact, Bierce took a certain perverse delight in being devilish. His writings have a flavor all of their own. His satirical skits, printed a decade ago, in the San Francisco Examiner and News Letter, are the fiercest lampoons ever published. He scored and scorned every one, regardless of position, whom he thought should be criticised. He did not fear to be frankly impersonal, either.
Leaving his placid Ohio home after the Civil War, he went to London, and joined some Bohemians who gathered together in a cafe in Ludgate Station. Here, with such gay dogs as Captain Mayne Reid, George Augustus Sala, and later Joaquin Miller, Ambrose Bierce drank social glasses and discussed literature and life. He confessed with his usual frankness that they “went to bed too late in the forenoon. In short, we diligently, conscientiously, and with a perverse satisfaction, burned the candle of Life at both ends-—and in the middle.” His cynical satire created a stir, and his writer friends called him “Bitter Bierce." Fortunately he had a rugged constitution, and his Bohemian life did not seriously impair his health.
He made an uncertain living by writing. For a time he was in hard luck, especially when John Hotten, a London publisher, died owing him a good sum. Bierce, through Chatto, secured a check from Hotten, but it was dated in advance, and when it became due, Hotten very ungraciously died. Bierce, however, thought it was still time to get the check cashed, went to the bank, but dropped in at his club, and over a mug of bitters related his tale of tribulation. By the time he reached the bank the news of Hotten's death was known, and Bierce was stung! Sala wrote a brief epitaph on Hotten:
“Hotten, Rotten, Forgotten."
And Bierce attended the funeral, where he felt more than he cared to express.
While in London, Bierce wrote a series of humorous essays on zoology, and published two books, one entitled "Cobwebs from an Empty Skull.” Gladstone discovered one of these books some years later at a secondhand shop. It was signed “Don Grile,” and was a collection of weird occult tales, written in a fine style; for whatever faults critics may find in Bierce’s works, they admit the literary quality of his style. Gladstone praised the book, and London was interested for a space.
Meanwhile the warrior writer returned to California. This was in 1880. He soon experienced enough adventures to fill several books. Most of the time he lived in San Francisco, but he also did some mining near Deadwood, South Dakota. Here he met plenty of unique characters, including “bad men,” whose favorite weapon was the six-shooter, an arm in which Bierce himself became an expert.
One night, accompanied by an armed guard, Bierce set out in a wagon to deliver $30,000 in gold which belonged to the mining company, of which he was the manager. A highwayman's shout “Hands up!" startled them in the darkness. The guard, who was armed with a rifle, was equal to the sudden dramatic situation, for he promptly threw himself over the seat, shot and put the bad man out of commission.
In San Francisco Bierce became the master of a group of young writers, who fairly worshiped him, being attracted by his powerful personality, his robust originality, and his clear-cut style and artistic craftsmanship. He originated a kind of occult cult, and it is in the psychic phenomena that he made some of his most daring and interesting excursions. From musings in this mystic realm came the unique story, “The Damned Thing," which belongs to the category of such mystery stories as Fitz-James O'Brien's “What Was It?" and Maupassant's “La Horla.”
Bierce always took a unique point of view of things, and declared that the horrors of peace were more terrible than the carnage of war, a view, enpassant, which seems to be popular in Europe just now! However, no one knew better than Bierce the pathos growing out of the inexorable irony of war, and for pure shudder-producing and sickening effect and hopeless protest, nothing outside of Poe can equal that grisly, blood-dripping tale, “Chickamauga.” It is about a little boy who strays into the woods, plays soldier with a wooden sword, and is lost. Becoming weary, he falls asleep. Meanwhile, all unheard by the sleeping child, the terrible battle of Chickamauga is fought in the neighborhood. When the boy awakes he is surprised to see a number of grewsome things— for they are humans no longer—creeping, dragging themselves on hands and knees, through the woods. On and on they come, a seemingly endless procession of weird beings, many mortally wounded, many with their faces shot away. In their delirium they are prompted by thirst to go on and on, and so they drag themselves to a stream in the woods. Some drink, but many others are so weak from loss of blood that they fall in and drown. The boy, not understanding the meaning of war, thinks the wounded men would play horse with him. He leaps upon the back of a soldier, and is rudely thrown off. Finally the child returns home. He finds that his mother has been shot dead.
In many of his stories Bierce has achieved that impersonal attitude toward his characters that is so characteristic of Maupassant. However, this is rather an artistic and not a personal trait. Though seemingly cold and hard, Bierce was generous and sympathetic. In another powerful story, "A Son of the Gods," in describing the dead on a battlefield, he cries out: “Oh, those many needless dead!"
Though Bierce wrote many books, he is generally only known as the author of a novel, “The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter." As a poet, his verse is clever and satirical, and he wrote at least one good poem, “An Invocation,” which is said to have inspired Kipling’s "Recessional." It is an address to the Goddess of Liberty. The most representative stanza runs:
“Let man salute the rising day
Of Liberty, but not adore.
’Tis opportunity, no more,
A useful, not a sacred, ray."
Bierce has been misunderstood, because of his intense and paradoxical nature. He was a great satirist, and an original artist. He has been characterized as a human devil, but like all cynics, he sometimes revealed a warm heart. Doubtless he concealed much concerning himself, and wrote and spoke and acted often with perverse superficiality
He was vain as well as egotistical, and liked to create a stir. His writings have not attained anything like the popularity that their literary merits warrant. He had been bitterly criticised, because he was fearless in his own opinions, and dearly loved a good fight for itself. He acted, in an unique way, a valiant part, being consistently inconsistent. He was not so cold and hard as he would have the world believe. In fact, there are some people living who can attest that Ambrose Bierce could be generous, and then promptly forgot the assistance that he had rendered.
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